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Will Coach Joe be reinstated as teacher tonight?

Photo: Embattled Sebastian River High School criminal justice teacher Joe Nathaniel

Embattled Sebastian River High School criminal justice teacher Joe Nathaniel, who has been on paid suspension for more than a year after physically subduing a violent student during a classroom scuffle, could be reinstated tonight.

School Board Chairman Charles Searcy last week called a special meeting to decide Nathaniel’s fate in the wake of a state administrative law judge’s Jan. 31 recommendation that the teacher be exonerated of all charges brought against him by the school district.

“Rather than take up this matter during our regular board meeting on Feb. 28, I felt this issue deserves our total attention,” Searcy said of the special Thursday meeting, scheduled for 5:30 p.m. at the School Board chamber.

“It’s the only item on the agenda, so we can give it a full and fair hearing, and I expect we’ll have some members of the community who will want to address the board before we vote,” he added. “This was the soonest we could get it scheduled.”

Schools Superintendent Mark Rendell, who 14 months ago recommended that Nathaniel be fired for violating professional standards and School Board policies, did not want to comment on the judge’s ruling until the board resolved the issue, district spokesman Flynn Fidgeon wrote in an email to Vero Beach 32963.

However, Rendell did not file any written exceptions to the findings of Division of Administrative Hearings Judge John Van Laningham, who verbally shredded the district’s case against Nathaniel, which he ruled was based almost solely on an incomplete and inconclusive student-recorded video.

In issuing his recommended order, Van Laningham wrote that Nathaniel deserved a “pat on the back, not a pink slip” for “keeping a foul-mouthed, defiant and violently aggressive student from causing further damage” during the Nov. 17, 2015, incident involving Isaiah Speights.

Searcy said he didn’t know whether Rendell would continue to push for Nathaniel’s firing or withdraw his recommendation, which was based on an investigation headed by Assistant Schools Superintendent William Fritz.

“The superintendent has already made his recommendation, and so has the judge,” Searcy said. “It’s in our hands now. It’s the board’s decision.”

Searcy was Nathaniel’s lone supporter on the board at the January 2016 meeting at which Rendell recommended the teacher’s firing. It was Searcy who questioned the superintendent’s decision to seek the harshest possible penalty for a 13-year employee with a previously unblemished record.

It was also Searcy who swayed board members to pay Nathaniel during his suspension after they had decided to send the case to the DOAH rather than vote on Rendell’s recommendation in front of a large crowd of the teacher’s supporters.

With Laura Zorc and Tiffany Justice elected in November to replace Matt McCain and Claudia Jimenez on the board – Jimenez had joined then-chairman Dale Simchick in backing Rendell’s push to fire Nathaniel – Searcy would not predict how the new board will vote tonight.

But he did say: “We decided to get a recommendation from Tallahassee because they’re supposed to have the experience and expertise in these matters. We asked the judge to hear the case and give us his ruling. That’s what has happened.”

Actually, three outside parties have now investigated the Nathaniel-Speights incident – the Sheriff’s Office, State Attorney’s Office and DOAH – and all of them sided with the teacher and defended his actions.

In his charging document, however, Rendell alleged that Nathaniel escalated the incident by taunting Speights, continuing to move toward the teen in an aggressive manner, physically abusing and yelling at him.

Rendell also accused Nathaniel of violating School Board policies requiring teachers to protect students from harmful conditions and prohibiting teachers from intentionally embarrassing students.

Nathaniel, who plans to attend the meeting, would not venture a prediction as to what the board will decide, but he said Rendell would be a “fool” to stand by his charges.

“Everyone who has looked at this case objectively has come down on my side,” Nathaniel said. “I’m still hearing from people who have read the judge’s ruling and laughed at how he ripped apart the district’s case.

“Clearly, this had nothing to do with what happened in that classroom,” he added. “This was personal. This was retaliation.”

Nathaniel has maintained that Rendell and Fritz want to get rid of him because district administrators fear his popularity and can’t control his candor – an issue that dates back to his public questioning of Sebastian River’s decision to fire longtime football coach Randy Bethel after the 2012 season.

A year later, Nathaniel went public again, this time to express his dissatisfaction with the district’s investigation into his complaint that some of Bethel’s former assistants were being referred to on campus derisively as “The BBC” – big black coaches.

In fact, Nathaniel has accused district administrators of trying to work an underhanded, quid pro quo deal with Speights’ family, alleging that Fritz offered to urge prosecutors to drop two misdemeanor criminal charges against the teen if he and his mother collaborated with the district in its case against the teacher.

The district has denied the allegations, but, in his Sept. 30 deposition for the DOAH case, Fritz admitted that he went to court and told County Judge Joe Wild that the district had no desire to press charges against Speights.

Speights pleaded “no contest” to a criminal mischief charge in March, was adjudicated guilty and placed on probation for 12 months. Prosecutors dropped a second charge of school disruption.

Nathaniel said he wants to “go back to Sebastian River” and resume teaching his criminal justice classes, but he doesn’t know if the district can accommodate him with less than three months remaining in the school year – if he is reinstated by the board.

“If we accept the judge’s recommendation and vote to reinstate him,” Searcy said, “I’m going to tell the superintendent to put him back to work and get him back in the classroom.”